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Reduction Of Armaments

Volume 56: debated on Tuesday 26 February 1924

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rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they can now say what steps they propose to take with regard to the reduction or limitation of armaments ; and to move for Papers. The noble Viscount said : My Lords, I do not propose to occupy your Lordships more than a few moments. Indeed, I would not again have troubled you on this subject but for the fact that since I had an opportunity of laying my views before you a deputation has waited on the Prime Minister and the Lord President of the Council dealing with this among other subjects. The Lord President, at that deputation, said that as regards the Treaty of Mutual Assistance he hoped we may be able to set up a strong Government Committee to consider it thoroughly. That is probably the only thing that can be done, and I am quite content with that undertaking by the Government. But I should like to know the nature of the Committee and when it is going to be sot up. I hope it will be a Committee of strong representa- tives of an impartial character and not merely a few delegates from Departments. This is a broad question of policy, and if it is to be investigated properly it should be investigated by a proper body, preferably a Royal Commission.

Secondly, I wish to press this on the Government; that there is no time to be lost. This matter comes before the Assembly of the League in September, Other Governments are considering it, and will reply. To judge by their present attitude, it is likely that most of them will be favourable, but the British Government must be, there with a policy and ready to say what they intend to do. If they appoint a Royal Commission, well and good, but it should be done immediately and set to work immediately so that it may report in time to enable the Government to have a policy before September. I hope the Lord President of the Council will be able to tell us that the nature of the Commission is fully settled and that it will be appointed without further delay.

My Lords, I think there must be some misapprehension. I recollect the meeting to which the noble Viscount has referred. It took place at the Foreign Office. I do not know that the word "Commission" was used.

No. The word was "Committee." This is the official statement issued by the Government to the Press of what the, noble and learned Lord said :

" As regards the Treaty of Mutual Assistance I also hope we may be able to set up a strong Government committee to consider it thoroughly."

The difference is this, and it is one of great importance. The responsibility in this matter rests with the, Government, and we do not intend to shirk it in any way by setting up what is sometimes called a Commission, or Royal Commission. The Government must-have the responsibility itself ; and that is what we intend. As regards the setting up of a Committee I am not sure that I can say anything at the present time. Committees are meeting and considering it, and are going to consider it from every point of view. As the noble Viscount has said, an answer must be given in time for the consideration of the Assembly of the League when it meets next September. That is some time ahead, but as soon as the Government can come to a determination the noble Lord is quite entitled to know what that determination is. No one has taken so much trouble in this work as he has. We are both at one in the desire to obtain some measure of disarmament. There is no difference between us upon that score. The question is whether the method which has been suggested, largely upon his responsibility, is the right one or not. The initiative on disarmament must come from the Assembly of the League and not from the Government. It is for the Government to consider the propositions made.

That does not, of course, exclude the Government from expressing its own view upon a very-crucial matter of this kind. But the method of procedure laid down in the Covenant of the League is that the Assembly shall make suggestions, and that the Governments shall consider them. At the present time a suggestion has been made—I do not say a suggestion for adoption, but a suggestion for consideration—which is considerably identified with the noble Viscount himself. That suggestion will receive the very fullest consideration of His Majesty's Government. As regards the noble Viscount's observations about the Committee, I do not wish to say anything more at present, but clearly the Committee must be formed from the Departments concerned. The Government is not going to delegate the responsibility which it must undertake to any other body, and the only way in which it can accept that responsibility itself is by having the full consideration, assistance, and views of the various Departments concerned. There is no other way in which the Government can fulfil its responsibility, and we do not intend to shirk our responsibility. I do not think I can tell the noble Viscount any more than that.

My Lords, I cannot pretend to be at all satisfied with the answer that the noble and learned Lord has given to me. I confess that it appeal's to me to be an answer which is likely to be viewed with grave dissatisfaction in the country. As I understood the noble and learned Lord, he says that the Government does not recognise any duty to have a policy in this matter at all.

I should like to correct the noble Viscount. That was not what I intended to say, and I do not think I said it. I said that the basis, the principle of action, was that proposals should be brought forward by the Assembly of the League and considered by the Government, and that is what we are doing at the present time. It is not for the Government to initiate a policy in these matters. It is for the Government to consider a suggestion which has been initiated, and that is what we are doing. That is a very different thing from what appears to be the suggestion of the noble Viscount, that we have no policy.

I do not think it is very different from what I have said. What course is it that the noble and learned Lord contemplates? According it that the League.is to develop, after two or three years, a policy which is to be put before the Government? According to the noble and learned Lord, the Government's whole duty is to say Yes or No to such a policy.

It is the only duty which the noble Lord has so far recognised. He is not prepared to say that the Government is going to consider whether, if this policy is not to he accepted, some other policy is possible. The question is whether the Government are in earnest in this matter of disarmament or not. That is the question which the country will ask, and they will not be satisfied with ingenious Parliamentary replies. They are in earnest, terribly in earnest, on this question, and they will expect the Government, not merely to adopt a purely negative attitude, but to declare their readiness either to accept a policy or to lay down a new policy which they will consider satisfactory. I confess that I have heard the answer of the noble Lord with the greatest misgiving, and I shall take the earliest opportunity of raising this Question again.

My Lords. I should like to say upon that point that I do not think the Lord President quite grasped the point at which the noble Viscount opposite is driving. As I understand it, it is that before the Assembly meets next September the Government shall have definitely made up their minds on this question of policy, which lies at the root of securing any measure of disarmament; that is to say, that the Government should be clear as to their policy before the Assembly meets in September, and not merely wait for suggestions to come from the Assembly, or consider this suggestion, or criticise it, without having a definite policy of their own on this very important question.

I regret that there should be any misunderstanding, and I should be very sorry if that were the case. The point which I was emphasising was the method of procedure by which the initiative comes from the League, and then the Government considers the suggestion which the League has brought before it. I do not suppose myself that by September the Government will not be in a position to express very decidedly their own views upon this question. I never intended to say a word to suggest that they will not, and that is my expectation. As regards there being any difference of opinion upon this point, the Government have, I think, shown in every way not only their desire to have what has been called a League of Nations policy, but their intense appreciation of the importance of this question of disarmament. I tried to express the other day my own view that, apart from disarmament, it is almost impossible to imagine that the Covenant of the League can be successfully worked. I have no hesitation in saying that, although I pointed out what appeared to me to be the right course of procedure, the Government in due course—certainly, I hope, before September, if not much earlier—hopes to express its own view, if it finds itself—as to which I say nothing at the present moment—unable to accept the proposal put forward at the present moment.

Do I understand that the noble and learned Lord definitely rules out the inquiry in public which I desire—I say so quite frankly—into the whole subject, not only of this particular proposal but of others that can be put before it. Will the Government insist upon a purely Departmental consideration of these questions, and do they intend to keep the public out of their confidence in this matter ?

I think, if I may say so, that the noble Viscount is hardly fair to put it in that way. What I said was that the Government are going to accept the responsibility which they think lies upon them to give a decision in this—

Wait a moment. They are not going to ask to get rid of this responsibility by remitting it to any other body. I am glad the noble Viscount agrees with that. That is their policy, and, so far from its being a policy of do-nothing, it is a policy of which the basis is that they shall consider the whole question and, on their own responsibility, determine what they think is right to be done.

My Lords, I do not propose at this late hour of the evening to make any considerable contribution to the debate, but I am interested to see that there has apparently been a clash of opinions between two such noble supporters of the League of Nations as Lord Parmoor and my noble friend, Lord Cecil. I merely desire that this question of disarmament should be examined with some contact with reality. Unfortunately, public business deprived me of the opportunity of listening to all the speeches that have been made, but I certainly do not propose that this topic shall receive discussion in this House on any occasion on which I am able to be present without making it perfectly plain what are the views which I hold, and which I fear are somewhat distinct from the views held either by my noble friend behind me or by the noble Lord, the President of the Council.

I hear all this talk of disarmament, and the more I hear talk of disarmament the more I feel myself impelled to ask what are the realities of the situation. Who is disarming, except the people who have not any arms at all ? Who is disarming in this world, except those who talk in terms of idealism ? I observe in to-day's papers a full report of the discussion of the League of Nations which met together in order to discuss the terms of naval disarmament. Have they arrived at an agreement ? We find, on the contrary, that even in the League of Nations, where one would have supposed there would have been those elements which, if any agreement be attainable, would have effected such an agreement, there has been complete failure to approach any agreement upon this point. The real truth is that when you talk about disarmament—and I would specially commend this to the Lord President, who is Deputy Leader of the House, and ask him to apply his mind somewhat to realities ; he used to apply his mind to realities—

I do not quite agree. When the Lord President was a high Tory in the House of Commons he used to apply himself very closely to realities. He used to warn the Government against the Socialistic tendencies of Mr. Lloyd George, and he was a strong advocate of the cause of Imperial defence. In those days I attached far more importance to his opinion than I do to-day, and I invite him, in the light of his new entanglements, to apply himself to those realities which I think he has forgotten. We are dealing in Europe with only one nation which at this moment counts, and that is France. We are all deeply concerned, if we can, to maintain our friendly relationship with France. Does the noble and learned Lord see any tendency in France to accept and illustrate the practice of disarmament ? We have now survived four years of bitter disillusionment since the Armistice, and what is the position to-day in Europe, as illustrated by the only other vital nation in Europe except ourselves, namely, France ? Did France demobilise her Army, or agree in substance, or even in spirit, to the Washington Conference ? What is the position of her air armament to-day ? Yet the noble and learned Lord sits there and talks in terms of disarmament which have not any relationship to any contemporary position in Europe.

I will tell him how he and his Government might more profitably employ themselves. Let them think in terms of national safety. Does the noble and learned Lord tell the House to-day that this country is safe? I agree that his Government has only been in power—I use the word "power" perhaps inadvisedly— in office, for about a month, and the responsibility is not primarily theirs. A year ago I raised in this House the subject of air defence, and I was interested to observe that the statistics, and all of them, cited recently in the House of Commons by the late Secretary of State for Air, were the very figures that nine months earlier I had unanswerably given in this House. Let us address ourselves to realities. Nobody in this world at the present moment has the slightest intention of disarming himself. "Spain, it may be observed, broke away from the discussion of the League of Nations a day or two ago upon the question of what is the strength to which she is entitled in the competition of the world, and while the noble and learned Lord, Lord Parmoor, and his fellow idealists, without the slightest contact with any contemporary reality anywhere in the world, are talking of what we may abandon, let them remember this, that there are a number of people in this country, of whom the noble and learned Lord used to be one, who have not the slightest intention of giving up anything which they conceive to be necessary for the protection of the country.

He might equally remember this. I think I see the noble Viscount, Lord Grey, still sitting in the House. We had a lesson three nights ago as to the practical contribution which we may hope for from the Liberal Party. There were five cruisers under discussion in the House of Commons—the inadequate and irreducible remnant of that which we had proposed—cruisers which wore necessary for no other purpose except for the pur- pose of replacement. Yet what did we find from the Liberal Party ? We found them in the House of Commons, for the sake of gaining a fugitive political advantage, attempting to embroil the Labour Government with their own extremist supporters, in order to pluck some small advantage for the Liberal Party. It is true that Mr. Asquith and Mr. Lloyd George abstained from that discreditable attempt; but we may at least derive this lesson, that the Labour Party in their attempt, even inadequately, to maintain the minimum provision required for national defence, will obtain no assistance at all from that section of the Liberal Party controlled by Mr. Pringle, and that they will and must look, as every responsible Government must look, to the Unionist Party for that assistance.

I recommend the Lord President of the Council, if I may do so, as one who has known him for a very long time, and who has been a very old colleague, if he can to rescue himself from the kind of vague talk which deceives him and carries him away, and renders him utterly unworthy of himself—this kind of illusory talk, this kind of vague tributes which he pays to other vague people indulging in silly talk in other countries of the world. On the contrary, let him address himself to subjects that he used to understand perfectly well—to the greatness of this country, and to the lesson that that greatness has been preserved, not by silly talk but by action, and by capacity for action when the need for action arises. By those means alone will the noble and learned Lord, and the Government of which he is a member, prove themselves adequate to the responsibilities and duties which rest upon them.

I have no right of reply, and I will only say in one sentence that I profoundly disagree with almost everything the noble and learned Earl said. I ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at ten minutes before eight o'clock.